The signature attraction of our former national pastime is underway—Game Three of the World Series is tonight, with the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves tied at 1-1—and yet the lords of baseball are nervous. Politics is not the issue. Yes, Commissioner Rob Manfred yanked the All-Star game from Atlanta this summer to punish Georgia for its un-woke voting reforms, but a Fall Classic pitting a Georgia team against one from even-more politically incorrect Texas has not provoked similar boycott demands. Rather, it’s the sport’s economics that worries top brass.
Last year’s October Classic between the Dodgers and Rays attracted the lowest TV ratings for a World Series since Nielsen began tracking them in the 1960s. In 1978, 56 percent of active viewers—more than 44 million per game—watched the six games of the Yankees–Dodgers Series; in 1980, the Phillies and Royals drew similar audiences. Those numbers have declined steadily ever since, to last year’s 12 percent share—fewer than 10 million viewers per game. By contrast, run-of-the-mill NFL games this year typically draw more than 17 million viewers.
Many factors contribute to this erosion of interest—in particular, the increasingly competitive nature of showbiz and the proliferation of options available to viewers. Faced with stiffer competition, however, Major League Baseball has both degraded its product and made it more expensive to consume.
Baseball’s biggest cost problem is time. Just as shoppers would judge Walmart’s “everyday low prices” unappealing if they routinely had to wait in line almost an hour to check out, viewers are refusing to pay an ever-higher price in time to watch ballgames. Games in the 1978 Series averaged two hours and 45 minutes (including one extra-inning contest). Last year’s Series was similarly compelling, but each game averaged three hours and 34 minutes, effectively taxing fans an extra 50 minutes per game—or five hours over the series—to enjoy the same amount of action.
Baseball’s time tax has been getting steeper at an increasing rate: average playoff-game length rose six minutes during the first decade of the new millennium and another 22 minutes since then. For historical perspective, games in the first World Series in 1903 averaged an hour and 48 minutes—half as long as today.
Making this problem even worse is the fact that the value of our time has soared—as measured by our steadily rising incomes or the richness of other attractions we must forgo to watch baseball. Greater affluence is normally good news for those selling entertainment, but not when the show preempts so much of our increasingly scarce time. Research with my colleague John Burger has shown that World Series telecasts, in economics jargon, are now an “inferior good”—one for which rising incomes, coupled with lengthy games, actually depress demand.
The good news is that MLB is actively seeking ways to solve the problem. This season, several minor leagues conducted a variety of experiments to shorten games and stimulate more action (more balls in play, stolen bases, and runs; fewer committee meetings). The most promising result came from requiring pitchers to throw the ball within 15 seconds of receiving it (or 17 seconds with runners on base), which reduced game length by 20 minutes.
As Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur report in The Ringer, even baseball purists saw virtue in speeding things up. MLB executive Raúl Ibañez—a 19-season big league veteran—monitored the 15-second clock experiment closely. He was “blown away by the pace, the quality of play, how crisp and fluid the game flowed, and not just the action that was involved in the game, but the frequency of action. You had to keep your eyes focused on the game. It felt like a baseball game just with a really great tempo and rhythm to it. It felt like the game that I grew up watching in the 1980s.”
MLB likely will advance the idea of a pitch clock in this winter’s negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement with players. It won’t be an easy sell, as the players’ powerful union has a history of demanding something in exchange even for a “concession” that benefits its members—as this innovation surely would.
Based on my aforementioned research with Burger, a mere 20-minute reduction in the time cost of watching an individual Series game would, all else held equal, add 0.6 Nielsen ratings points per game—more than 700,000 extra households tuned in. Roll back game times to the halcyon days of 1978 and viewership could surge by 1.8 million households per game.
Proportionate ratings gains and higher ad prices across a 162-game season and a full month of postseason games would clearly make the TV revenue pool—over which players haggle with owners—much larger. But will players understand that these greater dollar flows, along with ordinary competition for their services, can drive their salaries higher? Will they take the win, in other words? Time will tell.
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